This academic affairs case involves the suicide of a public high school student in New Jersey who had a known history of self-harm, primarily cutting. At some point, the girl’s mother approached the administration of her high school with concerns about her daughter’s well-being, at which point she was instructed to take her to the hospital. While at the hospital, the child was only seen by ER physicians before being discharged – at no point was the child seen by a psychiatrist or referred to one. A few weeks later, the parents of one of the girl’s friends approached her mother with concerns over comments that the girl had made regarding harming herself. She also informed the school of what she had heard, but was assured that the school was aware of the situation and was handling it. Just a few days later, the girl committed suicide.
Question(s) For Expert Witness
- 1. In general, what steps should be taken when a school is informed that a child with previous suicidal tendencies is acting suicidal again?
- 2. Have you ever created/developed policies for school systems for suicide prevention?
Expert Witness Response E-058173
I was a Special Education Director for 12 years, so I oversaw suicide prevention programs for large school districts. I also consult with schools on suicide prevention protocols, and I am a senior consultant at a company that works on facilitating threat reporting, including for instances of self-harm, to help build safety plans. This instance was not properly investigated right from the start, and a safety plan does not appear to have ever been put in place – I tend to use the Salem-Keizer method, which is a threat assessment plan. This negligence is procedural, with an issue in reporting complaints to the appropriate individuals and, right away, this sounds like a federal violation of OCR-reporting. This girl should have been referred to an appropriate psychologist or psychiatrist, with proper follow up done. She should have been supervised at all times until further evaluation confirmed that she was no longer a threat to herself.
Expert Witness Response E-053550
I was a middle school counselor before I went back to school to obtain my Ph.D, so I have experience working with students in this girl’s age range. I also ran a Counseling and School Psychology Clinic in Nebraska. At a minimum, the school should have contacted the girl’s father after a friend’s mother contacted the school with concerns, and then worked on developing a safety plan for the student. One method commonly employed in this QPR – Question, Persuade, Refer. The plan would also have consisted of getting the girl evaluated by a psychologist or psychiatrist, ultimately getting her on some form of medication until her suicidal tenancies had stabilized. This girl’s symptoms are a textbook case for a suicidal individual and this should have been handled as such.